“I ain’t dead yet. Don’t be putting me in the coffin already.”
— Willie K
Since Willie K’s bout with lung cancer became public, he and his family have been inundated with calls and messages expressing shock and sorrow. While the legendary entertainer sincerely appreciates the outpouring of sympathy, what he really wants — and needs — are prayers and positivity. And forgiveness.
At a recent gathering thrown by Willie and his wife, Debbie, for the folks who helped with his 2018 Blues Fest, Willie talked about the challenge he faces and asked his friends to support him with positive thoughts. With humor and grace, he acknowledged the sometimes bumpy road to deep friendship. “I know some of you guys have had thoughts of ‘Ho, dat Willie K, he can be such a . . .’ ”
He continued with a plea for forgiveness, a request to join him in putting aside anger in favor of healing, not just for him but for all hearts involved.
Willie is nearly as famous for his tempestuous nature and deadly stink eye as for his immense musical talent. While I’ve witnessed a few unpleasant incidents, and heard stories of many others, the Willie I know and love is the one who has given countless hours to supporting charities, Hawaiian culture and native rights, fellow performers and individuals in need. You’ve likely seen him donating his time and talents to numerous benefit concerts, but you probably don’t know the extent of his quiet, behind-the-scenes contributions.
During the years I was employed by the county’s Senior Services Division at Kaunoa, Willie played for our kupuna whenever I asked. Even though, as he once told me, “there’s no such thing as 10 a.m. for musicians,” he performed morning concerts for hundreds of kupuna, playing Hawaiian music and jazz standards, and hanging out to talk story after the shows.
When my late husband and I founded the nonprofit Mana’o Radio, Willie was the first big-name musician to perform for our regular benefit concerts. He headlined our first birthday bash and several more after that, including the joint fundraiser for Mana’o and (then) Maui Community College, which also featured another well-known, well-loved Willie.
“Willie Nelson and Willie K,” the promos declared, “MCC and Mana’o Radio give you the Willies!”
Willie has supported not only my chosen causes, but my professional and personal lives as well. Fourteen years ago, when I performed my first “Tita Out” show at the MACC, he agreed without hesitation to lend his name to the bill. We had a standing-room-only crowd, thanks to his participation, and he has been there for me at each of my subsequent shows, including my “Death Comedy Jam” in 2008.
I wrote and produced the DCJ a year after my husband died, with the help of several friends, including Eric Gilliom, Steve Grimes and Dr. Nat. I asked each of my guest performers to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was about death and was funny. Willie said, “Tita, only you would come up with something like this. And only for you would I do this.”
That night, he performed a 10-minute monologue, singing only once: a stunning a cappella verse of “Amazing Grace.” His reflections on the passing of his father and his best friend brought the audience to tears with their poignancy, depth and hilarity. He began and ended his set with an admonition to raise our youth and live our lives with love, above all.
In that first year of widowhood, I was blessed to perform and tour with The Barefoot Natives (Willie and Eric and producer Brian Kohne, my “brother from another mother”). Brian and Eric were business partners with much to discuss, which left Willie and me with a lot of down time together on airplanes and in hotel lobbies. We talked about our childhoods, our fathers, our philosophies, our futures. I discovered what lay between that gruff exterior and that generous heart, and how those layers were formed.
I’m just one of many who have benefited from Willie’s friendship, and one of hundreds of thousands who have gained joy from his talents. Please, if you have ever been touched by this man or his music, keep him in your prayers and your hearts.
Willie and Debbie are two of the strongest, centered and focused people I know. They are facing this challenge with positivity, and I share their optimism and confidence. Personally, I think that even the most aggressive cancer cells would wither under the glare of the Willie K stink eye.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.